Whilst no details of the Government’s proposals for the future of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) have been forthcoming in the recently-published Environment Bill, we can only hope that a degree of realism will be at the heart of any changes, says Eve Campbell.
There is no doubting the importance of EIA especially in the context of the climate crisis. It presents the local planning authority, statutory consultees and the public with the likely significant environmental effects of a development and aids decision making. However, increasingly, when a developer learns that a project requires EIA, their reaction is one of despair. Why is this?
In my experience, this isn’t because developers want to avoid EIA in principle or to cut corners when it comes to mitigation. However, increasingly EIA is becoming a drawn out process in which local authorities (often supported by an external review process) request environmental information which is unnecessary.
In some cases, EIA arguably becomes an open ended ‘wish list’ for local authorities, where risk-averse planners ask for everything imaginable, just so they can’t be criticised for missing anything. In the process, the submissions of experienced professionals, who have worked on the project from its inception, can be swept aside.
The view from Government
The Government is alert to this problem. Paragraph 44 of the NPPF advises that “Local planning authorities should publish a list of their information requirements for applications for planning permission. These requirements should be kept to the minimum needed to make decisions, and should be reviewed at least every two years. Local planning authorities should only request supporting information that is relevant, necessary and material to the application in question.” However, with the planning appeal system operating so slowly, the applicant has no effective way of ensuring this advice is put into practice, and it often is not.
The consequence is that EIAs are becoming more difficult, time consuming and costly to undertake.
Also, it is now common for local authorities to ‘outsource’ the review of Environmental Statements to the private sector. This is not surprising given the huge resourcing challenges that they face. But one can’t help but feel that this is creating and fuelling a system that just feeds itself – advisers feel they need to add value, and so tend to look for things to criticise, and there is nothing to restrain them from seeking perfection.
A balanced view
There has to be some balance. It is extremely difficult to design a scheme that satisfies every conceivable environmental challenge, and addressing one matter will frequently have a knock-on impact on another. The search for perfection can easily result in schemes losing the essence of what they were intended to achieve, or becoming no longer viable.
If used correctly, EIA is a great process for drawing a lot of technical information together in one place to allow for easy navigation of the environmental considerations at play. But it needs to be deployed intelligently and pragmatically.
My advice to clients is twofold: engage early with an EIA consultant, rather than reaching a stage where EIA halts the planning process; and make time for the Scoping process so that you can try and sensibly agree the requirements from the outset.
There will always be areas of disagreement and the issue of environmental impact isn’t going away. But a more balanced and pragmatic approach will help society deal with the complex challenges we face as we grapple with the issues of the post COP26 world. Simply tying everyone up in knots in a vain search for perfection isn’t a good way of moving forward.